P.J. Kavanagh, if not dismissed or relegated, is often shall we say bracketed, as a ‘nature poet’. The truth is, he’s as much of a nature poet as William Cowper was: in other words a good deal more than ‘a man who woos a rural muse’. While Kavanagh is also mentioned as a successor to Louis MacNeice and Edward Thomas, and is known for his portraits and tips of the hat to many other poets, such as Robert Lowell, Ivor Gurney and Yeats, it is, in fact, Cowper whose echo I myself hear most clearly.
Cowper’s now idiomatic phrases — ‘God moves in a mysterious way’, ‘Variety’s the spice of life’, ‘God made the country and man made the town’, and so on — are not far removed from what an 18th-century Kavanagh might have written: ‘Dread is easier to feel than God / Some days’, ‘Good God, what could have been bald is various’, ‘The brief illusion /of a life more “real” in London than in Kent.’
Both poets, it is true, are immaculate describers of the natural world. What a very Cowperish verse this is:
For instance, yesterday a mist
draped shrubbery in white, like frost
(new cobwebs, dewed, in layers).
I wrote of that, as though no wars,
diseases, prisons, others’ cares
affected me one jot.
A natural effect is beautifully observed and then the world steps in, with a hint of self-recrimination. There is melancholy in much of this poetry, but never a hint of Cowper’s stricken deer.
Despite his quality as a poet posterity will likely remember Kavanagh best for The Perfect Stranger, the account of his tragically short marriage to Rosamond Lehmann’s daughter Sally Philipps. It is impossible not to believe that the melancholy that gently invests Kavanagh’s work is not related to Sally’s early death. Grief is a frequent visitor to his lines; he seeks often, and succeeds, ‘to write and rhyme a sense of loss’.
And yet ‘Teach us, Signor, to love a good thing when we see one’; and this the poet does whenever the chance arises. There he is addressing a saint, but the poet is temperamentally given to loving good things anyway, whether it is Sally or his father, the company of friends or ‘the trees revealed’ as morning mist lifts.
This new selection, from eight books, dating from 1959 to 2004, has a foreword by Derek Mahon, in which Kavanagh is quoted as saying that he is surprised ‘more poems than I thought seemed to be in pursuit of something that was out of reach’. It’s true. Ghosts, dreams, presences, losses crop up in an otherwise emphatically concrete world. The last line of the last poem here is ‘something, somewhere, about’ and this undefined, even indefinable something, stands for what words cannot rise to: a something that moves in a mysterious way, although that is maybe too glib an idea for this never facile poet. In the rather wonderful ‘What I didn’t say to Thomas’ the poet is asked if he still believes in God, and replies, ‘Nuns got me early.’ He regrets the evasion:
It is glimpses stop me dead
(I should have said):
An orange shop-front blurred
By a bus’s passing red;
The swoop of a grounded bird
I had thought was wounded,
To the top of a misty tree.
The equating of the quotidian with the miraculous is thoroughly characteristic. The former emphasises the truth of the latter. Kavanagh is both urbane and pious. And although raised a Catholic, his relationship with God is intimate, personal. Very unlike Cowper’s this relationship is never really more than ruffled. Cowper expected hell. Kavanagh has already imagined heaven: it is, partly at least, ‘big rooms filled with laughing’.
As Mahon points out, Kavanagh has never been one of a ‘school’, and many different poets come to mind: MacNeice (especially in Kavanagh’s wide-ranging use of poetic forms) and Thomas, yes, Cowper, but also Coleridge (those ‘glimpses’ stopping him dead), also even Larkin, with whom Kavanagh shares a deeply personal, utterly unconfessional attitude. The confessions that are here are minor self-deprecations.
The pleasure of reading these poems is the pleasure of exceptionally good (meant in both ways) company. Kavanagh has exactly the right kind of curiosity — neither pedantic nor trifling, but casual in the best sense. He alights on things and makes them meaningful. As Peter Levi once wrote: ‘freshness inhabits him’. Or as the poet himself declares with witty ironic modesty in ‘Not Being a Man of Action’: ‘I assert my triumphant uselessness, and sing.’